On Our Love for Italy, Land of Malaise and Pessimism

14Dec07

In yesterday’s Times, we were told that Italy has sunk to new depths of despair on many fronts, “struggling as few other countries do with fractured politics, uneven growth, organized crime and a tenuous sense of nationhood.” There is widespread malaise, or malessere. Quoted is Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome: “It’s a country that has lost a little of its will for the future.” From Luisa Corrado, an Italian economist, we learn that Italians are the least “happy” of 15 Western European nations and do not trust either the world around them or even their own government. Moreover, the elderly are as pervasive as brilliant young entrepreneurs are scarce, and most shocking of all: there is no Italian Google (or at least a homegrown version of a world-dominating internet startup). “We can’t imagine in Italy that a 30-year-old opens a business in a garage,” says Mario Adinolfi, before elaborating: “In every country young people hope. Here in Italy there is no hope anymore.”

Yet we hear nothing of Turin, where we spent a week and didn’t see a single tourist, American or otherwise. True, it was the opposite of ethnically diverse — but compared to New York, what city isn’t? — and while we didn’t have to be convinced that it’s a culture suspicious of outsiders, it is still a city of millions, and are they all so miserable? Do you remember the afternoons we spent walking along the river, admiring the willows and atlas cedars, intoxicated by the scents of spring? Needless to say, we were hardly alone in our enjoyment of these pleasures, and we (who are always looking for the signs) did not note any particular “unhappiness” or despair among the people we saw, except that which marks the inhabitants of all cities, where we all at one time or another must confront our demons of existence.

And were they all so old? Perhaps, but we remember the tight jeans and 1980s haircuts seen in the parade of local teenagers who congregated under the porticoes one Sunday afternoon, and the clumps of screaming children who were released from jail school (and how we crossed the street to avoid them.) And people aside, let’s not forget the architecture! Downtown was exquisitely beautiful (except for the neon remnants of the recent Olympics), filled with apartment palaces dating from a gilded era centuries past and now being widely restored to residential dignity (and in many cases splendor). Yes, the hours of commerce were erratic — don’t they realize they’re losing money? — but who can deny the quality — and the timeless resonance — of the Piedmont cuisine? And is this food not flavored with the same obstinate refusal to adhere to American capitalism that has supposedly lowered the GNP and led to widespread doubt? If so, honestly, we would appreciate a little more of it here, just to counter the pervasive swaths of chain restaurants and sprawl that have fueled our rise to “prosperity.”

Or what about Venice, which according to the Times article is “the most beautiful of cities, but [one] whose domination of trade with the Near East died with no culminating event [and is now] essentially an exquisite corpse, trampled over by millions of tourists”? We remember those oddly familiar and somewhat noxious streets, the ones that are not peculiar to Venice but can now be found near cathedrals and towers everywhere (as well as Times Square), all lined with the same luxury-good retailers and — outside — counterfeit goods laid out on tarps that can be swept up in an instant if the police arrive. But that’s not the only story in Venice! It wasn’t so difficult to escape the hordes; just a few turns and we found ourselves in a maze of alleys, bridges and canals that by New York standards were enchantingly desolate, lined with decaying walls that for hundreds of years have already been crumbling into the sea. Or what about the Danieli, where we ate lunch, an expensive and greedy decision we made (twice) because we knew that nothing else would satisfy our desire to watch over the harbor boats with the same eyes as Richard Wagner, Henry James and so many other dead heroes?

Is it so horrible to be mired in the past we never knew, when the only certainties offered by the future are longing and disappointment? We ask: has there ever been a worse time to be alive than now? It’s always a legitimate question, no matter where you live! As we consider all of this — the article, our memories, the creep of nostalgia for anywhere but here and now — we are struck by the certainty that, statistics aside, nobody is unhappier than Americans but — and here’s the problem — more unwilling to admit it. Italy may be “behind” us in narrow economic indices, but to visit such a place is to understand that in terms of empires, it is a land of truth, filled with vistas we will one day call our own.

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